The sun was shining brightly off the whiteness of the page before me when I opened the newspaper. It was hot. Watery noises rose from the tide pool where children were swimming. The silence was otherwise disturbed only by occasional shouts from their strident games mistress who, since the narrow windows encircling the courtyard hid the upper and lower reaches of the world from view, I could hear but not see.
My gaze rested on the newspaper in front of me, whose pages I turned without thinking. The headlines (the news was always about the heat wave or the cricket) were immaterial to me. I had only a vague sense of what was going on. The news interested me only insofar as it provided something to look at and I let my eyes engage momentarily with this or that piece of information, not so much reading as giving them something to do to pass the time. Then I placed the paper facedown on the table, stood up, and sat down again.
I’d never liked crosswords or any kind of word games. It was a musician’s sensibility, perhaps, which made me pay more attention to the sounds of words than to their meanings. I couldn’t even read a novel since before long I’d always find myself in the middle of a sentence or a paragraph with no idea of where I was or what had come before. Tracing a plot or following a cast of characters required a mental gymnastics my mind seemed incapable of. Yet that morning, beneath the obituaries and the classifieds, the crossword drew me in. Who invented the telephone? What nationality was the first dog in space? My hand picked up the pen as if of its own accord. It felt pleasurable to be filling in the empty grid. It felt like doing something, a meaningful activity. Like work, even, to be exerting effort and producing results. The answers came easy at first. But one question led to another and sometimes, beneath the crossword questions, I detected other questions, small, half-formulated questions, questions that were almost too vague to warrant my attention. Why do you just sit there? Why don’t you go out? Why don’t you go for a walk or sit in the garden? But it was too hot to be outside and the grass was full of ants from the figs that had fallen from the tree. And what is the point of walking when there is nowhere you have to be? So I returned to the crossword, which wasn’t as inviting as before. The boxes looked somehow sinister and without purpose. Like molds, or the husks left over from something that had been there once and been taken away. Like holes, I thought. Empty holes. I said the word hole. Hole. Said out loud, it led in two directions: Hole. Whole. There was something about it that my ear liked.
I couldn’t even read a novel since before long I’d always find myself in the middle of a sentence or a paragraph with no idea of where I was or what had come before.
A worm shrank and shrugged its way along the raised flowerbed beside me. Half a dozen cigarette butts were balanced on a leaf of a nearby hydrangea but I didn’t look at them or think about them or ask myself why Mim had resumed smoking, which she’d given up for some time. I saw sailboats tacking across the bay, their sails facing away from where they were headed. The way the windows cut off the lower half of the view made the boats seem nearer than they really were, as though they were right there, sailing through the garden. But at the same time the illusion of proximity made them seem very far away, since unlike whoever was on board raising the sails or taking the helm or doing whatever people do on boats, I was just sitting there. You ought to be doing something, said the voice in my head. You should be playing the piano or sailing a boat or something. But these were idle fantasies. What would a man like me be doing on a boat anyway, I thought. Not raising the mast or taking the helm. I’d just be waiting for the boat to dock so I could sit down somewhere and have a drink.
My thoughts were interrupted when all the children in the tide pool started screaming at once. I looked down, thinking a fight had broken out, but it hadn’t, they were just screaming in pleasure as they threw themselves into the icy water. A particular boy caught my attention. He was standing on the wall in a pair of swimming shorts that made his legs look very small. What are you waiting for? the games mistress was saying. You’ve got to wet your whole body then you’ll be fine. I stood at the window, feeling the sun pouring into my own body, filling my head and my chest and my shoulders until the temperature inside me was the same as the temperature outside. The tide pool was a confused soup of bodies, one child’s limbs hard to disentangle from another’s. It felt, standing there, as though the heat was bringing me out of myself the way that, in summer, warm weather brings people out of their houses to spend time in the garden or out of their clothes to spend time in a swimming costume. Then a movement in my peripheral vision caught my eye. Behind the glass wall Mim was making her way down the ramp. She was facing me and I could see her lips moving but the glass between us cut off her voice. As in a silent film, the absence of sound drew attention to her body. There was something strange about the way she moved, chest first and legs trailing behind as if she wasn’t in control of herself but being sucked forward into a vacuum that had opened up in the air in front of her.
I followed Mim down the ramp and across the entrance hall toward the laundry at the back of the house, which she’d repurposed as a study. At the end of the corridor she looked at me, as if about to reiterate whatever she’d been saying, then turned away and closed the door behind her. I stared at the laundry door, the angled floor tiles pointed toward it like arrows. It pained me, this door; there were hopes there, fragile hopes I didn’t entirely understand. The laundry pulled me toward itself even as it closed its door against me. I’d been standing there for some time when I heard somebody knocking on the front door, but instead of turning around to open it, my feet, as if powered by some external force, carried me down the corridor. Strange thoughts floated into my mind, the vague and fleeting kinds of associations that arrive when one’s eyes lose focus, as when looking out the window of a train. Not for the first time, the thought of Hannah Kallenbach occurred to me. Perhaps the house had ingested some aspect of her presence because several times, in the middle of some everyday activity, I’d had the feeling that she was standing there, watching me, so that not infrequently, as I wandered around doing whatever I was doing, I would find myself thinking What would Hannah Kallenbach think of this? or What would Hannah Kallenbach say about that?
I reached the laundry and stopped, my attention fixed on the door handle, which was tarnished and slightly cocked. Well, said Hannah Kallenbach, what are you waiting for? If you want to see her, why then do you not knock? But my fingers gripped my trousers so tightly that they felt almost paralyzed. From behind the door came computer noises and the sound of Mim’s desk chair rolling across the floor. She knows I’m here, I thought, so if she wants to see me, she’ll come and get me. Once, the militant sounds of her typing halted for a moment and my heart stiffened, but the door didn’t open.
From behind me came another knock, louder now, but when I turned back to open the door there was nobody there, or rather I didn’t see the visitor immediately because he was standing to one side looking away from me toward something out of sight. The ivy that had been tethered to the door lay in a heap on the ground, leaving its small brown footprints on the wall. Hello? I said. And then Hello? again. The man looked around in surprise, as though I and not he was the unexpected guest. He wore a waistcoat and the baggy orange trousers a handyman wears, with pockets down both sides. His hair was curly, the kind which people like to call a mop of curls, though what it most resembled was an old tennis ball. His fleshy and rather froggy features made him look friendly, or if not friendly then at least unthreatening.
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Before he could speak, coming round the gravel path, a woman appeared in a bright patchwork dress and rubber shoes, so that together, in their colorful outfits, one might mistake them for members of a circus troupe. The name curtis touw rose from the business card he produced from one of his many trouser pockets. We’ve come about the plot, he said. They were coming to see everyone in the neighborhood. The Touws accompanied me up the ramp to the courtyard, where we sat down at the table, each facing slightly different directions because the slab was too low to fit our legs under without angling the chairs to one side. Touw leaned in and drew breath as if to start speaking, then pulled away, struggling to find words for what he had to tell me. He seemed to want to convey, through his difficulty in talking, the importance of whatever it was he’d come to say. How shall I begin? he seemed to be thinking. No, not like this. Several times he repeated this davening motion while, beside him, the woman extracted a number of black sketchbooks from his shoulder bag and laid them with exquisite care in rows on the table, as if preparing a card trick. The sea is very rhythmic today, she said, to which he replied, It’s not that rhythmic, actually.
What’s that hole, I said. It’s not a hole, Touw said, it’s a light well. But it looked like a giant rubbish bin, the kind of place where people would throw their used batteries or empty drinks cartons.
Resting his hand for a moment on one of the notebooks, Touw pushed it toward me. The first page was blank. On the second page, in an almost illegible calligraphic script, was written Manifesto for a House in the Sky. On the third page was a mountain painted in a grandiose style. It had a crystalline shape and no base, so that it seemed to hover, floating, in the clouds. Its outline had been sketched in pencil and filled in with watercolor inks — taupe, yellow, and gray — which seeped out in places. Did you know what you wanted to be when you were a child? Touw said, and I said, No. Which wasn’t true because when I was a boy I’d wanted to play the oboe but my mother, who’d found the sound of air being squeezed through a tiny hole painful to listen to, had bought me a piano instead. Nobody wants to hear about your personal trials and griefs, she’d said. Your trials and griefs are boring.
When I was a child, Touw said, I wanted to make people happier. So my teachers said I should be a psychologist. But then I found out that all a psychologist does is sit in a room all day, talking. And what’s the use of talking? There’s no use in talking. I wanted to make things happen. His wife opened her own notebook and transcribed this. While he was speaking, Touw’s eyes had wandered to the fenced-off area of land behind the house. The plot had been empty since I arrived, a razed patch of earth with a corrugated-metal hut to one side whose door sometimes rattled in the wind. A sign was affixed to its gate reading:
RISK OF ACCIDENT
Behind the plot was the mountain. It had the same features as the watercolor mountain in the notebook — the same granite peak with its few sideways-leaning trees, the lonely hiking trail cutting through the ferns — but it was less dreamy-looking so I hadn’t recognized it right away. The real mountain was heavy and angular whereas the watercolor version was light and ephemeral, with a more expressive profile. The watercolor mountain looked taller and sharper than the real one, perhaps because Touw had painted the vegetation line lower than it really was to emphasize the rock face and make it seem more brooding. Water from the painted waterfall fell more spectacularly than in actuality, cascading down the rocks, releasing clouds of vapor into the air as it hit the pool. Above, on the bare gray rocks of the highest peak, was painted a cap of shiny snow whose exaggerated whiteness, as in a religious painting, made the top of the mountain stand out against the sky. But where are the houses? I asked, because the sprawling colonial villas dotting the mountainside had either been demolished or wished away and replaced by what appeared to be a dozen or so Alpine cowsheds. The houses were too big and too far apart, said Touw. The next page showed a close-up of several cowsheds arranged side by side in a circle. Most people say smallness is bad, he said, but I say smallness is good. Most people want big houses but I think a house is a place for living in so it should bring people closer together. How can we feel close without being close? He leaned forward as he spoke, reaching his fists one by one over the table as if pulling me toward him on a length of rope. Houses should have no doors. Walls separate us. Our houses should help us see each other and hear each other and be with each other more!
The next picture showed more cowsheds slotted together. A column of text was squashed in the margins to one side of the page:
A house is a mach-
ine for living in tog-
ether so our houses
should be smaller to
bring us closer tog-
The houses are modular, said Touw, so they’re an ideal low-cost housing solution because they can be mass-produced in a factory and assembled on-site. The first row of cowsheds joined up to form a single-story circle, to which another row was added, and then another, etc. The sketchbooks showed the rising tower of cowsheds from different perspectives, in plan, in section, from street level, from above. The aerial view showed a void puncturing the core of the building. What’s that hole, I said. It’s not a hole, Touw said, it’s a light well. But it looked like a giant rubbish bin, the kind of place where people would throw their used batteries or empty drinks cartons.
In one image a cowshed had been sliced open to show its interior: a single room, with no dividing walls, furnished with only a built-in bed and a built-in table, both of which, as in a ship’s cabin, could be folded up. Beneath the folded-away bed was a toilet, beneath the table was a recessed sink. Touw provided commentary on his diagrams, which were all the time getting progressively smaller and more anatomical-looking, so that I could hardly see without leaning in. This is a brand-new type of hinge, he said, pointing his chubby fingers at a pair of interlocking loops. This is a suppressed windowsill, he said of two offset squares overlaid with a T-shape. And here — he identified a pair of bisecting lines — is a double glass window. All the while, in the background, the watercolor mountain seemed gradually to be getting less angular, as though somebody had smoothed its edges in sympathy with the tower’s rounded geometry. By the end of the notebook the tower must have been thirty or forty stories high, though it was hard to say exactly because the upper floors were hidden by the clouds, through which the dazzling sun, refracted, stretched its mustard-colored rays in all directions as if to announce the arrival of a great redeemer.
* * *
Katharine Kilalea grew up in South Africa and moved to London for an M.A. in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia. She has published a poetry collection, One Eye’d Leigh, which was shortlisted for the Costa Poetry Award and longlisted for the International Dylan Thomas Prize. She lives in London.
Editor: Dana Snitzky